When I heard about students at Ryukoku University's Faculty of Agriculture who trial-produced lunches costing no more than 30 yen (27 U.S. cents) per serving, I decided to visit the campus in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.

In my own student days, I was certainly no stranger to skimping on food bills. But putting together a 30-yen meal felt to me like a very tall order.

"Because of the severity of product development competition in the food industry, food makers go to extremes in slashing the costs of materials," said Toru Fushiki, 65, a professor of food and nutrition science at Ryukoku University. "I wanted my students to experience this themselves through this 30-yen lunch experiment."

Fushiki conceived this project upon hearing from his former students about their trials and tribulations of working in the food industry.

A total of 80 students in 16 teams signed up for this project. A local supermarket agreed to provide its per-gram price of food items to enable the students to plan menus.

Except for rice, which was free because it was being grown on the university's campus, the budget allowed only meager amounts of meat and fish, and condiments such as curry and doubanjiang (Chinese chili paste) were expensive. Vegetables, however, proved to be budget-friendly, while salt was 0.07 yen cheaper per gram than soy sauce. All these were eye-opening discoveries for Fushiki's students.

Ultimately, all 16 teams successfully kept to the 30-yen budget. On the presentation day, votes were cast to determine the winning concoctions based on taste and serving size.

One of the top vote-winners was a dish of chicken meatballs with "ankake" gravy. To make up for the meagerness of the chicken in the recipe, tofu was used to add bulk. The cost of this dish was 29.912 yen. The figures behind the decimal point suggest the great pains the team must have taken to pinch pennies.

Going through the recipes provided by the students, I could readily imagine the difficulties they faced when it came to setting the prices of their creations.

Even if they managed to keep the costs of the materials to 30 yen, the dish would have to be sold at a much higher price--at least over 100 yen--when utilities and labor costs, plus the profit margin, are added on. And that's not even factoring in the costs of transportation and sales commission.

"I was stunned by how much the cost of labor pushes up the selling price," said one student. "This project has got me into the habit of checking the product label very closely at the store," noted another.

This winter, the prices of lettuce, "daikon" radish and "hakusai" napa cabbage are inordinately high. This makes me think not only about farmers, but the food industry as well, the latter acutely mindful of per-milligram prices and even fractions of yen.

I certainly learned a great deal from the 30-yen experiment.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 1

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.